David Byrne, Rock Master of Multicultural Sound: The Rolling Stone Interview

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When were you first turned on to African music?
I think it must have been around 1978. I heard a South African jive instrumental record, something I picked up in a record store. I had no idea what it was.

What was it about that record that turned you on?
It was that I heard elements of sounds that I was sort of familiar with. I heard a little bit of Cajun, a little bit of Caribbean – gosh, what else? It was just something different. I guess I might've heard Fela before that. But the South African jive and Fela's Afro-beat were close to the R&B that I was already familiar with, so it was kind of an easy entry.

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It seems you and Brian Eno opened up that area of exploration for other rock artists, like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.
Well, I'd rather not get into who did what first. I know Peter Gabriel was doing something around about the same time, but it had a different flavor.

What moved you to incorporate these new elements into your own music?
At first, it was probably just instinct. I liked it. Later on, when I started breaking the beats down and putting them back together again, I saw how African and Afro-American songs were put together in similar ways. I saw there were social parallels to the music and a kind of sensibility and philosophy and even metaphysics that's inherent in the way the music's constructed and the attitude in which it's played. Then I started to understand why I liked it. And it seemed to me a way out of the dead end, the one-sided philosophical binder, that Western culture has gotten itself into.

Back in '79 and '80, when we were doing that, a lot of people thought, "Oh, did you go to Africa?" And they were surprised to find out that we hadn't – and I hadn't – and still haven't really. I'd love to, but I just haven't. But I think what happened was we'd found that the same sensibility existed right next door. There were American musicians playing from the same foundation. As different as the styles are in Paris, for instance, there's still a lot happening here.

Paris is where you recorded most of the new album, Naked, working with a host of African musicians. What kind of relationship did you have with them?
It was very relaxed. It didn't seem exotic. It was very natural and comfortable. In 1979, 1980 or whenever, when we were first playing around and trying to learn some other kinds of things, I think we really felt like students then, although we were often feeling our way on our own. But now I think that there's less of that relationship and more of a direct interplay. Everybody learns from everybody else and whatnot.

What about the Afro-Americans you've worked with?
Bernie Worrell and Alex Weir and Steve Scales, all those guys, we were learning a lot from them. Bernie's a kind of philosopher; something that would take me a page to say, he can say in a couple of words and hit the nail right on the head. Like his general attitude of playing with other musicians: you know, listening to what the others are playing and leaving spaces for each other, instead of everybody getting in their own seat of the car and then driving off.

You made your first African-influenced music with Brian Eno. What was the nature of that relationship? Was he both mentor and collaborator?
We first met him in London, and we'd hang out with him whenever we were there. This was all before we'd made any records together. So it kind of evolved in a very organic way, in the same way that when Talking Heads first got together, we weren't getting together because any of us were virtuoso musicians. We just kind of got along as people, and music was the way we could work together. Then we started getting into some stuff that had other beats in it, that kind of thing. I know, for him [Eno] and me, it was a shared interest and enthusiasm. We were friends, and we'd exchange tapes. I'd have a tape of something from Africa, and so would he, without any idea of doing something with it but just saying, "Have a listen to this; you might like it," or vice versa. And pretty soon, you know, we realized that something's happening here.

Do you think that this openness with Eno and all the guest musicians is the source of strength that's kept Talking Heads together for more than a decade?
That's a big part of it. Once we established that we weren't gonna always stick to one thing – although we always kept it more or less within a song framework – it was wide-open; it was almost like you could do anything. So it's pretty hard to get bored. Yeah, that would be a good reason we could continue.

You're obviously very protective of your privacy. Are you also attracted to the romantic image of the lone artist, or do you prefer being part of the extended family of a band like Talking Heads?
Well, I really love working with other people, whether it's the band or whether I'm working on a film or a video or whatever. In my creative endeavors, it's the most enjoyable. But I don't know – I just don't hang out with a whole entourage or anything like that all the time.

A lot has been made of your preoccupation with alienation. What do you think of that?
I certainly find it kind of exaggerated. I think it's probably true in some of my material. To me, songs like "Road to Nowhere" are about surrender, not alienation. Maybe people are taking the words apart from the music. That's a possibility. Or they isolate my body language or the tone of my voice without looking at it as a whole. It's like, in terms of African sculpture, most people look at a sculpture that's got 100 nails driven into it, and they go, "Oh, my God, what a horrible demon." What can you say? It's a reflection of their own sensibility. The thing is acting as a mirror.

They miss the moral judgment in that mirror. Speaking of subjective perceptions, there's also a popular view of David Byrne as a rather cool and detached performer.
I sometimes find it disturbing or unfortunate. My intention has always been for the musical structures or the stage performance or even the lyrics to acknowledge their structure, to kind of let you see how they're put together. Maybe for that reason people find it detached. But my intention has always been to have a lot of feeling in it. When I was perceived as detached or whatever, I often took that to be a criticism, and thought, "Well, how can I improve what I'm doing, what the band's doing, so that that's not the case?" I think that the Stop Making Sense movie made it pretty obvious that if that was the case at one point, it wasn't the case anymore.

You've definitely turned in some wild performances. Do you see performing as a means of releasing your passion?
I suppose it is, but it's more complicated than that. Maybe in the early ones it had to do with passion, which is, in its simplest form, an emotional outburst. But the later stuff became more about a sense of community and the whole catharsis that came from injecting some of your individuality into a group and getting something bigger back. And that's a very different kind of passion from the passion of somebody screaming in your ear.

At an ideal level, do you think the performance of rock could become a form of religion for you, and even for the audience?
Yeah. I mean, that's true. But like any religion, it always has the danger of becoming – oh, what's that Zen saying about pointing at the moon and mistaking your finger for the moon? There's always the danger of mistaking the thing in front of you for what's behind it.

Is this implied religiosity bound up in your fascination with TV and radio preachers and gospel singers [in True Stories] and the Afro-Atlantic religions?
Yeah, I think all of those involve performances with real passion in them. Or the kind of passion where in many cases I can see a parallel with musical performances, where one loses oneself, that kind of thing. Even the TV evangelists who are probably completely jive – they might be just going through the motions, but I think some of the people in the audience, the congregation, are not.

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What were your childhood religious experiences? You were born in Scotland.
Yes. And my parents.

Where in Scotland?
It's above England.

Oh, yeah! You turn left at Liverpool. No, I mean, where "in" Scotland?
Oh. Dumbarton. It's near Glasgow.

What was your parents' religion? What were you brought up as?
Let's see. They would go to church, and it was – what was it? It was either Presbyterian or Methodist. Something like that; it was along those lines. I kind of lost interest when I was a teenager. It's a pretty dour kind of spirituality. Then, being transplanted to the States, you're confronted by this incredible variety of spirituality, and some of it is very physical and very passionate in a really obvious way, which was very different from that. So that was an eye-opening experience.

One of your Celtic cousins, Van Morrison, was able to combine his religious passion with rock & roll.
Yeah, he went straight to R&B and found a common thread between R&B and Celtic spirituality.

And now you're investigating the Afro-Atlantic religions. You've studied Haitian vodun and Cuban and Brazilian orisha [Yoruba deities]. What do these religions mean to you?
I only have a rudimentary knowledge of them at the moment, but I think the first thing you discover is that they are benign, they're healthy. They're not some kind of creepy cult that's casting spells. That's kind of the first thing you discover, that the preconceived or stereotyped notions are basically wrong. After that, what you do with it is up to you, I guess. I don't know where to go with it from there. I mean, one thing I want to find out is if – as they would say in some TV commercial – it touches the parts that the other ones miss.

Artistically, you notice that this is the route where a lot of music and sensibility and attitude finds its way into pop music and popular culture. So it's a pretty natural thing to want to find out where all this came from: Let's get back to whatever it is.

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